Getting Internet Service in France

With moving to new unfurnished apartment (A Change of Address) in Argelès-sur-Mer, Tracy and I were faced with getting broadband internet service, something that had always been included as part of our previous furnished apartment rentals.  We very much rely on the internet for our communication and entertainment.

There are numerous options for internet service in France:  AliceBouygues TelecomFree, Orange, SFR, and additional smaller providers. Since we lack the language skills to really comparison shop well, we took the easy path by selecting Orange (formerly known as France Télécom), the largest national brand who provides service to more than 40% of France’s internet customers. A large “plus” for us was that Orange has an English language customer service line (+33  09 69 36 39 00) for sales, questions, service, and trouble-shooting. We liked the security of being able to resolve possible future problems in English rather than attempting to do so using our very limited French.  

Orange logo
Orange logo

I telephoned Orange, spoke with a service representative, and had the account arranged in a few minutes.  Installation was scheduled for a two-hour window in six days. Between my phone call and the appointment, I was told to expect the “LiveBox” (a combined modem and wireless router) to be delivered to our new apartment by La Poste (the French Post Office.)  The LiveBox device did arrived two days later. I also received also an e-mail reminder of my installation appointment (with the option to “click” on a button to delay the installation if necessary) and a mailed “hard copy” of my contract with Orange.)

Six days later while we were waiting to go to the apartment to meet the installation technician at 3:00, we received a phone call at 1:00 saying that the technician was ahead of schedule and asked if we could meet him early.  We went right over to the apartment and met our technician.  He set up the apartment’s LiveBox, went to the end of the block used his truck’s “snorkel” to “switch on” the connection on the telephone pole, and then went to the main control box down the block to activate our service.  The LiveBox is only the size of a hardback book and it is a “stand-alone” unit that does not require that it be connected to a dedicated computer.

The whole installation was done in less than an hour.  We then had active broadband internet as well as landline phone service that is included with the account.

Orange LiveBox
Orange LiveBox

In France the norm for internet service is by ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) carried over the copper telephone lines. France is the second largest ADSL market in Europe after Germany.

An issue we had over the last year has been the slow internet speed and narrow bandwidth at our prior apartment in Argelès-sur-Mer. While the landlord’s provided internet service was technically “broadband,” at best it measured at .52 Mbps, most often at .42 Mbps with frequent periods of even slower and sometimes complete outages. Several times I attempted an internet ‘speed test’ and the return was so slow the test “timed out” with no results possible. Tracy, who enjoys Netflix, often had an episode repeatedly interrupted and she was forced to sit and watch the frozen show buffer and buffer and buffer and buffer.  Uploading photos to Facebook could be problematic, YouTube videos might never actually load, and often we both could not be on the internet at the same time.  Our biggest problem occurred when the internet was out-of-service during the November 13, 2015 Paris terrorist attacks and friends and family were unable to reach us to confirm our safety.

Our new internet service “speed test” shows an increase of more than 20 times faster download speed with at least 10.5 Mbps and a 300% increase in upload speed. The difference in “Ping” return is much better; 32 ms for our new service compared to an average 678 ms at the old apartment.

Netflix recommends a broadband connection speed of at least 1.5 Mbps download for standard viewing and 5.0 Mbps for high-definition. Skype recommends 0.1 Mbps for voice calls, 0.5 Mbps for video calls and 1.5 Mbps for HD video calls. (But since most speed tests measure download and upload speeds separately, a person making a Skype call needs higher internet speeds than the minimum recommendations because the communication is in two directions at the same time.)

While we were moving items to the new apartment this morning and putting together a new shelf unit, I received a follow-up call from Orange. They wanted to double-check how our appointment went, if everything was working properly and if we were pleased with the technician who installed our service. Very nice customer service from Orange so far.

So along with the excitement of moving into our new apartment, Tracy and I are thrilled to once more have efficient internet access and that the whole process was simple and easy.

 

 

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Transferring Money Between the US and Europe

Tracy and my retirement system requires pension payments be made into an US bank, so we have a logistical issue of how we get funds to France. Also, being on a fixed-income, we want to get money to us in France in the most cost-effective manner possible. Everyone has seen bank service charges and ATM fees quickly add-up over time, bleeding funds from bank accounts that we would rather keep for ourselves.

Euros Currency
Euros Currency

Contrary to my original expectations before we moved overseas, there are no “global banks” in the US.  There are international banks like Barclays, HSBC, Halifax, UBS, and Deutsche Bank with branches in the US, but you cannot deposit money in an US branch of an international bank and simply withdraw funds in another country without fees. Banks in the US are state and federally regulated and are separate legal entities from their European home branches.

1.) Currency exchange before leaving. When we still lived in the US and would travel internationally, we would pre-order foreign currency ahead of time so we would have the local money when we arrived at our destination. Our US bank is Bank of America and its online banking web site has a link to easily order foreign currency.  Larger orders of foreign currency would be shipped and held for pick-up at the local bank branch. The exchange rate is good and a request took just a couple of days to fill.  Doing the exchange before leaving let us have the local currency in our pocket for immediate needs like eating and transportation. Carrying more than $10,000 by a family into or out of the US has to be reported to US Customs and Border Protection. (Currency / Monetary Instruments – Amount that can be brought into or leave the U.S.)

2.) ATM.  If you are already in Europe, one of the easiest way to obtain local currency is at a bank’s ATM machine.  (Make sure before to leave on your trip you give your bank a travel notification that will be making purchases abroad so the bank won’t disallow foreign transactions because of “suspicious activity.”  Also be aware that many international ATMs accept only a four digit PIN, the PIN may not be able to start with “zero,” and often the keypads will not have letters – only numbers.) Most US banks have specific “partner institutions” abroad that if you use their ATMs you can minimize fees.  For example, Bank of America’s current partner institution in France is BNP Paribas.  Bank of America’s foreign transaction webpage explains costs in greater detail:

“When you use a foreign ATM, you could be charged a variety of fees, including non-bank ATM usage fees, ATM operator access fees, and international transaction fees for conversion to U.S. dollars. One way to limit such fees is to use your Bank of America ATM or debit card at one of our international partner ATMs. This enables you to avoid the Non-Bank of America ATM $5 usage fee for each withdrawal, transfer or balance inquiry as well as the ATM operator access fee. Keep in mind that when you use your debit card to withdraw money from an international ATM, Bank of America will assess an international transaction fee of 3% of the converted U.S. dollar amount. Foreign ATM operators may offer to do your currency conversion for you, but they may charge a higher fee for conversion. You can refuse the foreign ATM conversion and be assessed the 3% Bank of America international transaction fee instead.”

BNP ATM
BNP ATM

ATM fees at a non-partner institution can add-up, but are still much more cost-effective than the rates at currency-exchange businesses or exchanging cash at a hotel desk. The currency-exchange businesses are notorious for poor exchange rates, handling fees, and very expensive commissions. A loss of up to a 1/3 of the value of your US money at a currency-exchange business is not unusual. Do not bring US cash to Europe with the intention of exchanging it at a local bank. When our son Casey recently arrived in Paris with US cash, he attempted to exchange US dollars at a couple of local banks.  The banks all referred Casey to currency-exchange businesses (with the resulting loss of value due to poor exchange rates and high commissions.)  The Paris banks only exchange foreign currency for their account holders. Even when I took the US dollars to a Paris branch of Tracy and my French bank we were told we had to go to a specific bank branch to exchange the funds. Once at that branch we learned the US cash had to be deposited into our French bank account and would be unavailable for withdrawal for week. I wondered if we could have exchanged the US currency at all if we weren’t in a major city like Paris.

3.) Credit and debit cards. Major credit and debit cards are generally accepted throughout Europe, while not always at small shops and cafes which may be “cash only” businesses.  It’s always smart to keep some cash in your pocket to avoid embarrassment. US credit card companies often impose a surcharges on foreign transactions and conversation fees for purchases made abroad.

While US cards nearly always work in European ATM machines, there is sometimes the issue of whether or not a business can accept an US “swipe and sign” credit card because the “chip and PIN” “smart” EMV cards have been the norm in France for 20 years and the rest of Europe for almost as long. Some European businesses point-of-sale devices, lack the ability to “swipe” a current US credit or debit card. Tracy and I will normally use our French cards for European purchases and US cards for US businesses to minimize foreign transaction fees. US banks and credit card issuers have started to issue “chip and sign” “smart” debit and credit cards at the customer’s request.  We have updated all our US credit and debit cards (Visa, MasterCard, American Express) to “chip and sign” “smart” cards to broaden where our cards can be accepted in Europe. The European “chip and PIN” cards from US issuers will be coming several years in the future as US businesses have to first upgrade their infrastructure to accept “chip and PIN” cards.

"American Express smart card"  by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:American_Express_EMV_card.jpg#mediaviewer/File:American_Express_EMV_card.jpg
“American Express smart card”
by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

4.) PayPal.  We have occasionally used PayPal to transfer money “person-to-person” to our adult children in the US.  We have found it convenient to send money by PayPal so that an adult child can access funds almost immediately.  (i.e. Payday is tomorrow, but a car tire needs to be replaced today.)  It is simple for the recipient to transfer cash from a PayPal account over into their checking account.  There is no delay compared to mailing a check from France to the US or waiting more than a week for a bank transfer to process.  There are zero fees for us to send money using PayPal, but the fees for receiving money from one US account to another US account, up to $3,000, is 3.4% plus $0.30.  So sending $100 on our end will be $96.30 when it arrives at its destination.  We have also used PayPal to transfer a “first month” deposit to a landlord in France. PayPal 5.) International Wire Transfer.  Tracy and I have been using wire transfers to move more substantial funds from our US bank to our French bank account.  (Getting A French Bank Account.) International bank wire transfers are reliable, safe, and in our experience they takes 7 to 10 days to process.  Bank of America’s Online Banking web site has all the links to transfer money by wire to an oversea bank account. To set up the first wire transfer we had to request from our French bank its “Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication – Bank Identifier Code” (its SWIFT-BIC number) and “International Bank Account Number (its IBAN number)” to correctly receive the money in our French bank account.  After the initial wire transfer our Bank of America web site retained the SWIFT-BIC and IBAN information for future transfers. As additional security for transfers larger that $1,000, Bank of America will also provide two-factor authentication with a SafePass card.  The SafePass card will generate a six-digit one time use code number that is used to authorize an online wire transfer request over $1,000.  With Bank of America there is a fee of $35 to send a wire transfer.  At the “other end of the wire,” BNP Paribas will charge us €18 to accept the wire.  Depending on transfer rates, there is a cost of about $55 to send yourself money with a wire transfer. Built into the wire transfer is an additional cost because the bank uses the premium currency exchange rate which is much less advantageous than the mid-market, interbank exchange rate you see posted to currency exchange rate sites like XE or on Google.  That can add up to a 5% additional cost to a transaction because of the bank’s premium “adjusted exchange rate.”  Our goal was not to have transfers every month so we can minimize the transfer fees.  Like visiting the ATM machine, it is better to pay for only 4 or 6 transfer fees a year rather than paying for a monthly wire transfer.

Bank of America SafePass Card
Bank of America SafePass Card

6.) Peer-to-Peer Transfer  While we have had no problems with the wire transfer, we are always looking for ways to reduce our transfer costs further. We have started using London-based financial company TransferWise as our P2P money transfer service in the place of a bank wire transfer.  The process is simple to perform online and funds have been available for us within five days rather than the 7 to 10 we previously had with bank wire transfers. TransferWise is sometimes referred to as “the Skype of money transfers” because one of its founders, TaavetHinrikus, who was one of the original members of the Skype development team. TransferWise has been providing Peer-to-Peer money transfer services since January 2011. TransferWise is a registered money service business with the British Revenue and Customs department and fully authorized by the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) as a payments institution.

TransferWise Logo
TransferWise Logo

UK newspaper the Guardian named TransferWise as a “A Foreign Currency Exchange Service With A Twist – It Doesn’t Exchange Any Money” and a top innovator for 2015.

“TransferWise is making inroads as a foreign exchange service, with a twist: it doesn’t exchange any money. Instead, it pairs people who want to get rid of a currency with those who want to get hold of it. If Alice in the UK sends £10 to Bob in Ireland and at the same time Charlie in Ireland sends €12 to Diane in the UK, then the money doesn’t cross any borders at all; Charlie just sends his money to Bob, and Alice sends hers to Diane. That lets the firm slim its fees down to a minimal level, charging less than £5 to send £1,000 overseas.”

TransferWise eliminates currency conversion fees and international transfer fees for clients.  The start-up company has $58 million in investors as of January 2015.  In its first four years of operations, TransferWise has transferred roughly $4.5 billion through its platform saving users about $200 million in banking fees usually incurred when moving money abroad.

Peer-to-Peer Money Transfer. "Transferwise" by Shaviraghu - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Transferwise.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Transferwise.jpg
Peer-to-Peer Money Transfer. Credit: “Transferwise” by Shaviraghu – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Transferwise.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Transferwise.jpg

With a $2,000 transfer we save the $35 fee sending a wire transfer from our US bank account, the € 18 fee receiving the wire into our French bank account (about a $55 saving), and we get the midrange exchange rate from TransferWise rather than the lower “bank adjusted” exchange rate which is a hidden cost to sending a traditional wire transfer.  TransferWise charges €1 or 0.5% (whichever is larger) in an equivalent amount in the customer’s currency. TransferWise makes its profits with exchange volume, reduced infrastructure, and avoiding the fees inherent in international transfers. And it is a growing business model, there are now other P2P currency exchange companies including CurrencyFair, MidPointKantox, and PeerFX.

Any other issues?

Traveler Cheques.  Traveler Cheques are pretty much obsolete and it’s difficult to find businesses that want to accept them.  ATMs and debit cards have replaced the Traveler Cheque in Europe.  I understand Traveler Cheques can still be useful in visiting China.

We keep a close eye on Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) issues. Congress passed FATCA in 2010 to deter tax evasion by making it more difficult for U.S. taxpayers to conceal assets held in offshore accounts by international shell corporations.  The law requires foreign financial institutions to report to the Internal Revenue Service about their US clients’ accounts.  The unintentional side effect of the law has been that rather than deal with the costs, additional paperwork, and potential penalties by the US government, many European banks have elected to close the accounts of US expats. (Time Magazine: Swiss Banks Tell American Expats to Empty Their Accounts, The Guardian: ‘I was terrified we’d lose all our money’: banks tell US customers they won’t work with Americans, Forbes: 10 Facts About FATCA, America’s Manifest Destiny Law Changing Banking Worldwide.) So far BNP Paribus is keeping us as customers and providing good service for us.

Recently, there has been several major international banking scandals which may impact us and other expats with the resulting new banking regulations. (The Guardian: HSBC files show how Swiss bank helped clients dodge taxes and hide millions.  Business Insider: Now RBS employees need to be worried about the Swiss tax evasion probe.)

That is a peek at the complexity of our financial lives as expats.  It’s a “moving target” for us trying to stay on top of the rapidly evolving global financial picture.

Learning to Speak French in France, Part II

I recently had a friend ask how speaking French was going for me.  He had assumed that with nearly two years in France I would be near fluent with French. It has been about a year after my first post on this topic (Learning to Speak French in France) and I have to admit to coming up extremely short on my goal to “speak French as well as a five year old child” by the end of 2014.

While Tracy tells me I have made some good progress speaking French, that progress is not nearly the fluency of a five year old French child. An honest self-assessment is that I was not consistent enough in my language studies over the past year.  Like many “New Years Resolutions” I began to slip in my studies about April and was “hot and cold” for the rest of the year with my language work.

I have friends who were foreign exchange students who after six months were on their way to speaking their new languages well.  I think the biggest difference was that those friends really were “totally immersed” with a host family that often didn’t speak English and the “sink or swim” daily survival motivation greatly helped.  With Tracy and I as a couple of living abroad, the majority of my conversations are in English with her.

The start of 2015 is a good time to reassess, consider changes to my learning strategies, and re-commit to learning to speak French well.

Part of this re-motivation is reminding myself why I want to learn French.  If I have managed to function in France for nearly two years without a good proficiency in French, why bother?

The first reason is to really develop meaningful friendships and to really understand people in our new home, I need to be able to communicate beyond the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” or the set formula (“Je voudrais un . . . ” I would like  . . . ) levels of “getting by.”  Even only being able to speak and understand concrete concepts in French would greatly broadens our interaction with French people.  Some of our expat neighbors have developed wonderful relationships with local French people.  This is denied to us because of the communication barrier.

The second reason is that,“(t)he French have the lowest level of English proficiency out of all the nationalities in the European Union.”  Only about 39% of residents in France can hold a conversation in English with the greatest English proficiency being found in major cities. The number of English-speakers in France has slightly declined in recent years.  To function well in France I need a greater command of the French language.  While we have been able to locate an English-speaking doctor, ophthalmologist, veterinarian, and pharmacist, we have struggled with communications issues with our visa renewals, health insurance, and our banker.  We are living in France, we need to learn to speak French.

Finally, I am having “glimmers of a breakthrough” with learning French.  I like the challenge of learning to speak and understand the second-most spoken language in the world after English.  French and English are the only two languages spoken on all five continents with French being an official language in 29 countries and one of the six official languages of the United Nations.  I hope learning French will be a good tool for our future travel and helpful with better understanding other Romance languages like Spanish and Italian.

I just read an extremely motivating article in Time Magazine, “The Secret to Learning a Foreign Language as an Adult.”  The author, David Bailey, described his process which he claims allowed him to learn French to conversational fluency in 17 days.  I wanted to immediately dismiss the claim, but the author had prior fluency in another Romance language to build upon and he described a committed and intense regimen to achieve his goal. While I’m not Mr. Bailey, it is motivating to see what is possible in rapidly obtaining mastery of a new language with hard work.  My personal goals are not nearly as ambitious.

So what are my goals and how do I plan to achieve them in 2015?

GOALS:

1.  I am repeating my 2014 goal of being able to speak and understand French as well as a five year old by the end of 2015.  I want to be able to have basic conversation about concrete concepts with the correct use of elementary grammar and tenses.

2.  I will take and pass the Diplôme d’études en Langue Française (Diploma in French Studies – DELF) at the A1 level (beginning basic user) in 2015 and then prepare to take the A2 level (elementary basic user.)  This is a “hard” quantitative goal to add to my more subjective goal of being able to communicate as well as a five year old.

PROCESS FOR 2015:

There is a lot of research into second-language acquisition and that the process for learning another language later in life is more difficult for adults than children due to the reduced “plasticity” of the mind with age.  (The Science of Learning a New Language (and How to Use It).

My approach is to continue to use different methodologies to involve different learning modes.

1.  I will study French language an hour a day, 20 days a month (Monday through Friday with make-up time on the weekend for any missed days.)  I often incorporate the audio lesson with walking Sami the MinPin in the park where I can freely repeat the lessons out loud.

Alan Listening to Audio Lessons
Alan Listening to Audio Lessons

2. With the recommendation of a friend I met on the Camino de Santiago, I’ve added the Michel Thomas Method French audio program (http://www.michelthomas.com/how-it-works.php), to my learning process.  Both Tracy and I have been impressed with the methodology and the speed of acquisition with the Michel Thomas program. It’s a very enjoyable and engaging way to learn.  Its emphasis is on relaxed listening only and the use of a text and notes are discouraged.  In the “The Secret to Learning a Foreign Language as an Adult” article Mr. Bailey’s also described his use of the Michel Thomas program too.

Michel Thomas French
Michel Thomas French

3.  I am continuing to use Coffee Break French (http://radiolingua.com/shows/french/coffee-break-french/).  I especially like its practical short scenario-based lessons and the PDF lesson notes that allows me to practice reading as well as speaking French.

CoffeeBreak French
CoffeeBreak French

4.  I will maintain using the Pimsleur French program (http://www.pimsleur.com/Learn-French) for its methodology of “spaced repetition” for building vocabulary.  Pimsleur is the most formal and traditional of these three audio second-language acquisition programs.  The Pimsleur program is the most demanding to maintain focus with throughout its 30 minute lessons.

Pimsleur French
Pimsleur French

5.  I’ve added a DELF A1 study guide, Reussir le Delf A1 book and CD.  The text is designed for students preparing for the DELF A1 examination.  The guide was developed with Centre International d’études Pédagogiques (International Centre for Studies in Education – CIEP) who administers the DELF proficiency level exams.  The downside is that the guide is completely in French and I have to figure out any questions myself.

Réussir le Delf A1
Réussir le Delf A1

There is also a language school in Argelès-sur-Mer, where we are moving in April 2015. That school offers a preparation workshop for taking the DELF A1 test.  I need to research, but the workshop may be worth the time and cost. I also intend to investigate the language schools in nearby Perpignan, but most of those schools are priced for tourists and not retirees’ budgets.

For supplemental learning I am making a point of reading and translating at least one article in a French newspaper daily and using “close-captioning” on television to both hear and see French simultaneously.  I haven’t been using the French TV previously, but I believe it will help me further “train my ear” to understanding French better and to speak with the correct pacing.

I wrote in my last year’s blog post about second-language acquisition, “The programs I picked are certainly not the . . . only options, but these are the learning programs I selected for my personal andragogy (adult self-learning) and learning style.  The biggest success factors I think for any adult second-language learner is their motivation and perseverance.  There is no “Magic Bullet” of the perfect learning program, no “learn French in just 10 days.” Learners must be consistent and actively involved in their self-education  like any other pursuit – golf, cooking, knitting, playing a musical instrument – there is no passive approach to mastery”

For 2015 I believe I need to follow my own advice about “motivation and perseverance” and maintain consistency in my study efforts.

Learning to Speak French in France

“So . . .  do you speak French?”  A common question I was asked last year before we departed to France,  the answer was, “Hardly a word.”

Our backstory explains how Tracy and I, through a convoluted process, came to retire in France.  Prior to our retirement we did two years of Italian language study at Truckee Meadows Community College and using Italian Rosetta Stone computer software. (Our original retirement location was Italy.)  My high school and college foreign language was German, Tracy’s was Latin.

Now approaching our first year anniversary in France there is still the question, “Do you speak French?”  Tracy describes that I have an effective set of French “coping phrases” for life at the market, cafe, train station and my accent has gotten much better, but I’m still not to a conversational level.  We haven’t found it to be true that with “total immersion you will pick up the language just like that” followed by snapping fingers.  If anything, I am disappointed in my limited progress acquiring a good command of conversational French due to a lack of sufficient effort on my part.

While recently in Montpellier we met a delightful pair of five-year old French girls on the tram who chatted in English with Tracy and me.  I decided that by the end of 2014 I wanted to speak basic conversational French as well as these five-year olds spoke English (I won’t even get in to the question, “Are you smarter than a Fifth Grader.)   This seemed like a reasonable and obtainable goal.  So I made a New Years resolution to stay on a comprehensive learning schedule for French language acquisition.

There are lots of methods for second-language acquisition.  I know that I am more of a physical/aural learner so I selected audio learning systems.  Tracy decided to stay with Rosetta Stone French because she found Rosetta Stone effective for her previously while learning Italian.  (I also liked Rosetta Stone, but I wanted a system that starts with conversations and doesn’t require performing the learning in front of a computer.)  We would have liked to attend a French language class in a traditional classroom, but there was no cost-effective classes in Carcassonne (but there are some really expensive one-on-one tutoring available.)

The programs I picked are certainly not the best and only options, but these are the learning programs I selected for my personal andragogy (adult self-learning) and learning style.  The biggest success factors I think for any adult second-language learner is their motivation and perseverance.  There is no “Magic Bullet” of the perfect learning program, no “learn French in just 10 days.” Learners must be consistent and actively involved in their self-education  like any other pursuit – golf, cooking, knitting, playing a musical instrument – there is no passive approach to mastery.

I reverted back to my pre-retirement “Type A,” overachiever personality and selected three distinctly different learning programs to learn with rather than selecting just one system.  My hope was that the different language programs would overlap subject matter, fill in holes, and reinforce the material in other programs.  I wanted audio programs for use on my iPod that could be transportable and not require that I sit at a computer to work on my language studies.  I wanted to listen and re-listen to a lesson while taking a walk, cooking, riding the bus, doing dishes, or shopping.

Pimsleur French

Pimsleur French
Pimsleur French

First, I selected Pimsleur French (http://www.pimsleur.com/Learn-French)  which is a traditional audio learning program.  The Pimsleur Method has been teaching millions of students since the 1960’s and is considered by many to be a solid, tried-and-true method that stresses active participation, not rote memorization.  Although it emphasizes formal language and is somewhat dated with its lack of computer graphics, it is still frequently rated in the top 5 or higher of language learning programs.  (http://learn-french-software-review.toptenreviews.com/pimsleur-french-unlimited-review.html)   The Pimsleur system uses four principles in its teaching method:  anticipation with “challenge and response” similar to having a conversation, graduated-interval recall to reinforce vocabulary, a core vocabulary of the most commonly used French words, and what Paul Pimsleur called organic learning, auditory learning similar to how children learn language by hearing examples and then repeating what is heard.  The lessons are in 30 minute blocks that allows total effort without fatigue.

Amazon.com offers Pimsleur French levels I, II, & III for approximately $350.00 (in January 2014).

Coffee Break French

CoffeeBreak French
CoffeeBreak French

Secondly, I picked Coffee Break French (http://radiolingua.com/shows/french/coffee-break-french/) as a second-language acquisition tool.  The audio lessons are available as a free iTunes download and from the Radio Lingua Network website (http://radiolingua.com/).  (There is also Coffee Break Spanish and Coffee Break German available as well as a series of brief audio lessons in 24 languages ranging from Arabic to Zulu.)   The original concept was to make language training conveniently available “during a daily coffee break.”  These well produced audio lessons use the fun learning device of the instructor, Mark Pentleton (an experienced French and Spanish teacher), working with a college-aged student.  This Socratic technique makes the lessons fun and upbeat while allowing the student to act as a proxy for me in a classroom.  Most lessons are in 20 minute blocks, with approximately 100 lessons currently available and new lessons being frequently added.  Part of the charm of Coffee Break French is that the instructor Mark Pentleton is Scottish.  Although his English instruction has a distinctive Scottish burr, his French pronunciation is properly accented.  While there is paid supplemental content available from the Radio Lingua Network,  I only needed the professional lesson guides to accompany the audio lessons. Well worth the extra cost as I the lesson guides have helped me with my reading of printed French, building my vocabulary, and to better understand the conjugation of French verbs.

Coffee Break French has emphasis on proper French grammar as part of the lessons, something the Pimsleur program does not dwell upon.  Like the Pimsleur method, the lessons revolve around conversations based on real-life daily activities.

I selected the Bronze membership, which provides a set of 40 lesson guides for £27.00 (in January 2014), although there are periodic discounts and I was able to purchase the lesson guides for just £21.60.

FrenchPod 101

FrenchPod 101
FrenchPod 101

Finally, I selected FrenchPod 101. (http://www.frenchpod101.com/) A popular audio language program with free audio lessons, but I haven’t found FrenchPod 101 as well-organized or structured as the Pimsleur or Coffee Break French.  What I do like is that the FrenchPod 101 offers lots of cultural insights, daily life in France, and casual French phrases.  The cultural insights was one thing I greatly enjoyed in our TMCC Italian class with our professor, Carlo, who described his growing up and living in Italy.  The lessons are usually less than 10 minutes with an energetic native French speaker and an American who is fluent in French.  The discussions sound like two college-aged people talking about speaking French or living in France.  The lessons include the use of casual and informal French language along with proper formal French.  The lesson guides are helpful, but frequently do not exactly match the lessons’ dialog.  There are about 300 lessons, but it is difficult to organize the lessons into a well structured schedule of study.  It seems that the parent company, LanguagePod 101, (http://www.languagepod101.com/) provides the free audio lessons as a device to market paid subscriptions its to online training platform.  I  used my initial seven-day free trial to download the audio lessons and lesson guides that I was actually interested in using.   Another learner who wants to work from their computer might like to join the “FrenchPod 101 Learning Community” and use its additional tools.

I use FrenchPod 101 as a supplement for its cultural insights and expanding my knowledge of informal French.  I wouldn’t use this for my primary learning tool.  

I do one lesson each from Pimsleur French, Coffee Break French, and FrenchPod 101 everyday, Monday through Friday.  I leave the weekend free to rest or catch up on any overdue work.

Supplements

Duolingo
Duolingo

Duolingo

I use the free language-learning site Duolingo on my Kindle as educational entertainment.  Its graphics are very similar to Rosetta Stone learners’ interface. It is a very worthwhile learning platform that I should consider working with more often.  Amazing quality for a free service.  It’s pretty fun too.

Flashcards

Being a physical learner, I find creating my own flashcards has the dual purpose of physically writing words down that I can later use to quiz myself.  The audio learning programs do need supplements to assist me in learning to read French better.

Readings: French Newspapers, Menus, Grocery Items

I do my best to read the local newspaper online and physical newspapers while in cafes, as well as review menus, and read the names describing items in the store.  The newspapers and menus challenge my reading comprehension.  I find shopping reinforces my vocabulary when I see a physical object (apples, shoes) next to a sign (pommes, chaussures.)  This is part of that “total immersion” experience to learning French.

Notebook

I keep a pen and notebook in the camera bag that I always carry.  I find new words while I am out in the community that I am unable to define and make a note, then check on the word once I return home.  Interesting how those words stick in my growing vocabulary.

Talk and Listen

I try to push myself to speak and to carefully listen to the local French people around me.  It makes me practice, increases my confidence, and forces me to try to “think in French” not “translate English into French.”

DELF Challenge

DELF
DELF

I wanted to set up some tangible goals to work toward with my French studies.  There is what is called the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) which is the guideline used in Europe to describe a person’s fluency in other languages.

The CEFR classifies learners into six levels:

A Basic User

A1 Breakthrough or beginner
A2 Waystage or elementary

B Independent User

B1 Threshold or intermediate
B2 Vantage or upper intermediate

C Proficient User

C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced
C2 Mastery or proficiency

The French National Ministry of Education (Ministre de l’Éducation Nationale) provides testing for diplomas of achievement (Diplôme d’études en Langue Française – DELF) at each level of proficiency.  (I believe this is similar to the United States’  Test of English as a Foreign Language exams – TOEFL.)  There is a DELF exam for each of the six levels that test for four different language skills:  listening, speaking, writing, and reading.

So, if I am understanding this certification process correctly, I want to test my second-language acquisition progress with the DELF testing.  My goal is to earn at least the DELF A1 diploma in 2014.

So, with no “Magic Bullet,” I had better stay on track with my learning schedule for 2014. Someday soon I may be speaking as well as a five-year-old.

EDC – Every Day Carry

Pretty much every trip out of the apartment I have my Every Day Carry (EDC) bag, my essentials for every day in our new home of Carcassonne.

This carry bag is a bit different from my current and former law enforcement colleagues, with their EDC gear including their department or LEOSA authorized essentials for making an arrest or resolving a self-defense situation, but the principles of being self-sufficient are the same.

1.  5.11 Tactical P.U.S.H. (Practical Utility Shoulder Hold-all) Pack

I like a carry bag that I can organize my gear and use winter or summer.  A carry bag can be carried over a heavy jacket or a shirt.  There is no forgetting a piece of gear being left in the pocket of my other jacket or left on a nightstand, it is all in one place.  I like the 5.11 brand for its low-key practicality and toughness.  The pockets are secure so there are fewer worries about a pickpocket lifting my wallet or camera and the bag’s ballistic nylon deters access by cutting into the bag.  The P.U.S.H. pack doesn’t scream “expensive camera bag,” “military bag,” or “cop bag” and it isn’t an oversized messenger/computer bag.

Alan wearing 5.11 P.U.S.H. pack
Alan wearing 5.11 P.U.S.H. pack

There is a “man bag” culture in France and the Mediterranean areas with many local men wearing a shoulder bag “cross chest carry,” a sacs en bandoulière,  so my carry bag, while a bit larger than average here, blends well into everyday life without making me looking like a tourist.  (Think, “Fanny pack.”)

The P.U.S.H. pack has two side expanding pockets that I make use of for a water bottle and sunglasses case.

5.11 Tactical PUSH (Practical Utility Shoulder Hold-all) Pack
5.11 Tactical PUSH (Practical Utility Shoulder Hold-all) Pack
5.11 Tactical PUSH (Practical Utility Shoulder Hold-all) Pack with Sunglasses and water bottle
5.11 Tactical PUSH (Practical Utility Shoulder Hold-all) Pack with Sunglasses and water bottle

2.  Kleen Kanteen Classic 18 ounces water bottle

I carry Kleen Kanteen stainless steel water bottle with 18 ounce capacity.  With us walking more in our new home, we never have to scramble for something to drink.  Carrying a water bottle eliminates the cost of buying water and the impact of all those empty plastic bottles.  The Kleen Kanteen is free of BPAs and has no plastic or epoxy linings that can crack like in aluminum water bottles.

Kleen Kanteen 18oz Classic
Kleen Kanteen 18oz Classic

3 & 4.  Ray Ban Prescription Original Wayfarers Sunglasses and Hazard 4 Sub-Pod Sunglasses Case

With making the decision to be pedestrians most of the time, I end up wearing my sunglasses nearly all the time when I’m outdoors in the daytime.  I opted for the darkest polarized lenses available and a nearly “crush-proof” Hazard 4 sunglasses case.  I trade out my standard eyeglasses and sunglasses in the case so I always have both with me.

Hazard 4 Sub-Pod Sunglasses Case
Hazard 4 Sub-Pod Sunglasses Case
Ray Ban Prescription Original Wayfarers Sunglasses and Hazard 4 Sub-Pod Sunglasses Case
Ray Ban Prescription Original Wayfarers Sunglasses and Hazard 4 Sub-Pod Sunglasses Case

5.  BLU Samba Jr Cellphone

Tracy and I needed phone communication in France immediately upon arrival. We purchased an unlocked cellphone and SIM card with a French telephone number from Cellular Abroad, a National Geographic affiliated company. It’s a “pay-as-you-go” system where you can add time through an English-speaking operator.  We wanted to “unplug” for a while from always having smart phones, but wanted a basic phone for emergency “112” calls (French “911”), calls from home, and a local phone number for French government agencies and businesses.  After our French bank account is established we will consider whether or not to reactivate our unlocked iPhones with a French provider.

BLU Samba Jr Cellphone
BLU Samba Jr Cellphone

6 & 7.  Business Cards and Dog Waste Bags

We have business/calling cards printed with our e-mail for use with new friends and local businesses.  The dog waste bags are so we can be good neighbors cleaning up after Kiara (although it seems that, regardless of signs everywhere, few French dog owners follow suit).

Business Cards and Dog Waste Bags
Business Cards and Dog Waste Bags

8, 9, 10 & 11.  Bellroy Travel Wallet, Currency, Identification, Miscellaneous Cards

There is a Bellroy travel wallet in carry bag’s zippered inner pocket. I wanted to stop wearing my wallet in my back pocket where it is more accessible to pickpockets.  It now takes a very concerted effort to obtain my wallet from its location in my carry bag.  My travel wallet holds my passport (France wants you to have your Carte d’Identité or passport with you.), currency, driver’s license, credit cards, SNCF and TER (national and regional train systems) discount cards, and French supermarket loyalty cards.

Bellroy Travel Wallet
Bellroy Travel Wallet

12 & 13.  Moleskine Notebook and Pen

My second most used tools in the bag.  I am constantly writing notes to myself, making lists, listing directions, translating French phrases to request assistance, and writing down personal observations.  One of those old police habits of always having paper and pen available and making frequent notes.

Moleskine Notebook and Pen
Moleskine Notebook and Pen

14 & 15.  Folding Nylon Shopping Bags and Spare Reading Glasses for Tracy

“Paper or plastic?” is not usually an option here.  If you want a bag for your groceries you need to bring one (or several) yourself. Being primarily pedestrians, running back to the apartment to get shopping bags when we suddenly remember that we needed some things for the kitchen is awkward and time-consuming.  The thin, folding nylon bags take little space and are always helpful.  I also carry an extra spare of Tracy’s reading glasses in my carry bag since she often doesn’t carry a purse or camera bag..

Shopping bags and Tracy's reading glasses
Shopping bags and Tracy’s reading glasses

16.  Olympus E-PL2 Mirrorless Digital Camera and Electronic Viewfinder with an Olympus M.Zuiko 14-150 mm Zoom Lens with lens hood and an Olympus M.Zuiko 17 mm “pancake lens” or a Olympus Tough TG820 Waterproof/Shockproof Digital Compact Camera 

My most used tools since arriving in France have been my cameras. I alternate between carrying the compact Olympus TG820 when I want something lightweight in my bag all the time or in adverse weather and the Olympus Pen Camera with interchangeable lenses when I want more professional shooting options.  When we decided to minimize one area was my photography.  I had a larger prosumer Canon DSLR with multiple lenses which I really enjoyed.  But two years ago when I carried my Canon outfit to the top of Florence’s cathedral dome, up  all 463 steps, I realized that:  1.) I wasn’t getting any younger (that was a “killer” climb even without the heavy gear) and  2.) I wasn’t shooting photos professionally anymore.  Today I shoot photos to share events and travels with family and friends.  I decided to explore the new smaller and lighter “mirrorless” digital camera systems and return to a more classic “Robert Capa” photojournalism style of shooting images.

The carry bag allows me to “stash” the cameras out of sight in a low-key bag to avoid being targeted for camera theft and to avoid the perception of the stereotypical tourist.  I always have at least the compact camera and extra batteries in my carry bag so I hope to never lose a “photo op” because I didn’t want to carry a DSLR camera with me.

Olympus Tough TG820 Waterproof/Shockproof Digital Compact Camera
Olympus Tough TG820 Waterproof/Shockproof Digital Compact Camera
Olympus E-PL2 Mirrorless Digital Camera and Electronic Viewfinder with an Olympus M.Zuiko 14-150 mm Zoom Lens with lens hood and an Olympus M.Zuiko 17 mm "pancake lens"
Olympus E-PL2 Mirrorless Digital Camera and Electronic Viewfinder with an Olympus M.Zuiko 14-150 mm Zoom Lens with lens hood and an Olympus M.Zuiko 17 mm “pancake lens”

17.  Carabiner

I carry a carabiner on my bag to quickly secure my carry bag if I remove it while eating or having an espresso at an outdoor cafe. Anytime I take my carry bag off, the shoulder strap is looped around a chair or the table (or in a pinch, my leg) and secured with the carabiner.  Anyone attempting to “grab and run” is going have to be able to outrun me while dragging along a large piece of the restaurant’s furniture attached to my bag.

Carabiner
Carabiner

18, 19, 20, & 21.  Change, Money Clip, Leatherman Juice Tool, and Apartment Keys

The final parts of my EDC gear is actually located on my person, rather than in my carry bag.  I carry loose change is in my pockets.  Europe uses one and two Euro coins which have proven very convenient.  The lowest paper denomination for Euros is a five Euro note. I carry a money clip with currency in my pocket to avoid having to reach into my bag and displaying my wallet for every purchase.  I don’t want a prospective thief to constantly see where my wallet is coming and going to.

A Leatherman Juice C2 multi-tool takes care of most tool needs with needle-nose pliers, a knife blade, screwdrivers, and the very necessary corkscrew. I’ve carried this versatile pocket tool for years.

I still wear a wristwatch, another “cop habit,” although cellphones have nearly eliminated the need for one. I rotate wearing a Seiko Black Monster dive watch, a Victorinox Swiss Army Maverick II Dual Time Zone watch, a Longines dress watch that was a college graduation gift from my parents, a Citizen Eco-Drive watch that was a gift from Tracy, and a Seiko custom TMCC retirement watch, a personalized gift from Tim Dees.

My  final essential is the apartment’s keys.  After years of having the “school custodian’s” size rings of home, cars, and office keys, I now carry only a building key and apartment door key.

Leatherman Juice C2 muliti-tool, Euro coins and currency, and money clip
Leatherman Juice C2 muliti-tool, Euro coins and currency, and money clip
Watches
Watches
Keys
Keys

Even with the above items, There is still room in my EDC carry bag for whatever else the day’s activities might require:  an umbrella, map, shopping list, Kindle, camera flash, dog’s medical records, camera tripod, flashlight, or something for Tracy.

The Eagle Scout in me has a difficult time leaving for the day without remembering to “Be Prepared” which has been serving us both well in our daily exploits here in Carcassonne.

Still More Minimizing and More Milestones

First milestone:  Wow.  Over the last 18 months we downsized, minimized, donated, gave away, and trashed in order to move from the house into our current one bedroom apartment.  Over the next 60 days we will be minimizing still further from the apartment eventually into two suitcases each.  Over the last two weeks Tracy has scanned, edited, and uploaded about 7,000 hard-copy photos; snap shots, wallet-sized, Polaroids, 3X5’s, 4X6’s, 5X7’s, 8X10’s, and 10X13’s.  I’ve uploaded dozens and dozens of digital photo files from CD’s and DVD’s onto a one terabyte external hard drive.  Add to that work scanning all the legal documents that we may need that doesn’t require the actual “hard copies”.  The scanning ended up being a huge project to complete.  We loved taking photos of the kids when they were growing up.  Now we are delivering and mailing the photos and other family memorabilia to the adult kids.

Second milestone:  The semester started today at the college today.  For the first time in twenty-three years I’m not teaching either full-time or part-time at TMCC.

Third milestone:  My first pension check from the Nevada Public Employees Retirement System (NV PERS) arrived today.  After 32 years of public service in law enforcement and teaching I am retired.

Tracy scanning and editing family photos.
Tracy scanning and editing family photos.

Portfolio Preview

An Italian Point of View has a new Web site. This new site has portfolios of our favorite photos from excursions we’ve had recently.

Updates will occur as we continue on our journey and our hope is to connect the new Web site and our Twitter, Flickr and You Tube accounts to our Word Press blog. For now I think we may have to memorize all of the Web addresses and add links, but as we become more proficient we expect that these things will also get easier to link together.

So visit the new site and view some our current online portfolios.

Pre-Planning Communications Abroad

A question we have repeatedly been asked is how Tracy and I plan to stay in touch with family and friends back in the States after we relocate to Italy.

We are planning to make maximum use of today’s communication technology.  We won’t have cash flow to make frequent trips make to the US, so we plan to stay in touch through the constantly evolving technology.  The cost of international phones calls and the nine hour time difference the west coast can make traditional telephone calls problematic.

SOCIAL NETWORKING:  Tracy and I started this WordPress Blog with the principle goal of staying in touch with family, old friends, and new friends we will make.  We wanted a central platform to journal our new lives, share travels and events, post photography and communicate.  We will also create “An Italian Point of View” FaceBook page and link it to this blog to mirror the posts and provide an easy second method of access for FaceBook users.  FaceBook Chat allows us real time communication when we and another person are online at the same time.  A third access method is to link the Blog postings to Twitter so people know when we have updated our Blog.

E-MAIL:  The Blog allows for an e-mail notice whenever there is a new posting to the Blog.  Tracy and I both have new G-mail addresses for traditional asynchronous e-mail.  Google Docs (soon to be Google Drive) allows us to create real-time, cooperative documents, like a vacation itinerary, that can be shared a with a friend planning to visit while updates and edits can be done on both sides of the Atlantic before their departure.

WEBCAM:  We have had good previous experiences using Skype and ooVoo for free video chats with family.  We hope to expand on that to see family and friends frequently and see the grandkids getting bigger over time.  G-mail also have a video chat service available that we want to explore more.  There is also a premium service from Skype and ooVoo that allows multiple participants in a video conference call that we intend to investigate.

WiFi:  Italian anti-terrorism and anti-mafia laws limits free WiFi Hotspots like we are used to in the States.  There are free and paid WiFi locations in Italy, but there is a more elaborate sign-in process. We will also have WiFi at our apartment, a MiFi system, or mobile WiFi cards for our laptops.  Broadband Internet is one “luxury” that we consider a necessity for our life abroad.  It is our key to staying in touch with family and friends in the US.

TELEPHONE:  Before leaving the US we will purchase an unlocked cellphone with an Italian phone number that we can share with family and friends in the event there is an emergency that requires that we be contacted immediately.  Cellular Abroad, sponsored by National Geographic, has unlocked cell phones available with the Italian SIM cards and a “pay as you go” payment option.  This is useful for us since we don’t plan to have much need for a phone in Italy immediately, but still need one for emergencies and business related calls.  Italian government agencies will often use phone text messaging for notifying clients.  Cellular Abroad provides its cell phone services through the Italian cell phone company, Vodafone, which provides phone service nationwide in Italy.  We don’t expect family and friends to pay international rates to chat on the telephone when video calls, text chats on the computer,  and e-mail is free, but we wanted the telephone option for an exceptional events, emergencies, and for our local use in Italy.

Ask us next year if these “best laid plans” worked as we intended.

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